THE PALESTINE CONTINGENT
A dozen of us, Dutch nationals all, were called up for duty in the Netherlands forces in 1943.
We were issued British uniforms with a shoulder patch reading "Royal Netherlands Forces" and assembled at the Tel Aviv central bus station on a hot day in June. From there we were sent to a transit camp in Haifa that was infested with bedbugs.
In the Haifa transit camp we met a number of Soviet prisoners-of-war who had been liberated in North Africa, a place where they had been taken by the Germans for slave labour. They were on their way back to the USSR.(1) A five-man chorus had been formed among them. Celebrating their liberation, they sang passionate, heartrending Russian folksongs with wonderful musicality and dynamics.
l learned to accompany them on my little accordion, which they called a Garmoshka.(2) After three days in the transit camp we were put on a train to Egypt with other military personnel, among them a bunch of Sikhs who spent much of their time picking lice from their turbans. When we crossed the Gaza strip, we were confronted by hundreds of Arab urchins congregating around the train, begging. Many had eyes infected with trachoma. It was the sort of poverty we had not seen before, for the Jewish parts of Palestine lived in relative prosperity compared to the life of Palestinian peasants. (Today Israel is an affluent country. The Israeli Arabs and Druze and the Bedouin all live well but the refugee camps in the Occupied Territories and especially in the Gaza Strip are stilt poverty-stricken. In spite of the Israeli oppression and exploitation, the standard of living has risen substantially for the Palestinians in the West Bank since the Six-Day War in 1967.)
We changed trains in Ismailia, a flower-drenched tropical city on the banks of the Great Bitter Lake and arrived in Suez at the tip of the Red Sea at six in the evening. As we descended from the train, the heat hit us as if we had entered a baking oven. How could anyone survive in a climate like this?
We were put up in tents in the adjoining desert. Each day at three pm a howling sandstorm arose and we were issued goggles to protect our eyes from the scouring effects of the swirling sands. At night we required two blankets.
After five days of heat, cold nights, sandstorms and sand flies, seven-thousand military personnel embarked on the Mauritania, one of the Cunard passenger flagships.(3) Although the name of the ship had been painted over and the whole ship was the colour of dirty water, the letters were still visible in bas-relief. The soldiers were a mixture of Aussies, New-Zealanders, Sikhs, Indians, British, Czechs and Canadians, plus our twelve-man Dutch contingent. To transport twelve man from the Middle East to England in the midst of the war must have involved an enormous expense. This action of collecting Dutch nationals from all over the world to organize what became a brigade of 1300 troops was a political move. The Dutch government-in-exile wanted to be seen as having participated in the liberation of Europe. It would have been made little military difference if there had never been a Princess Irene Brigade but once it came into existence, it did, of course, have military value.
On the Mauritania we slept in hammocks in the hold except during our passage through the red Sea, when most of us spent the nights on deck. The Australians and New-Zealanders played poker and the Czechs kept a lotto game going at all hours.
Among our Dutch group was a schlemiel of a reserve sergeant, who was put in command of our unit. Suddenly infused with power, hè insisted we do calisthenics and close-order drill on deck, to the consternation of the 6988 others on board. When we arrived in Madagascar and hit the southern winter, it suddenly turned cold. We returned to our hammocks in the hold, where we met bedbugs hiding everywhere. They dropped on our bodies from the ceiling and kept us sleepless at night. The ship zigzagged because we travelled at high speed, trying to shake any lurking German U-boat whose speed was less than half of ours.
In Cape town we were given shore leave and were warned not to mention our origin, our destination or the ship's name. We were informed that South Africa was full of German spies and large percentage of the people were Nazi sympathizers. The weather was cool and crisp, the city was beautiful. l took a cable-car trip up Table Mountain with Sol Schwarz, took a leak over the edge, then took the cable-car down. (4)
In the afternoon a Dutch family invited us for tea. l recall a furry white cat and one of our men exclaiming, "Wat een mooie poes!" There was consternation among the listeners, whereupon the embarrassed man pointed at the hostess, "Ik bedoel niet deze poes, maar,"pointing at the cat, "die witte poes."
In Cape town we picked up a large contingent of Springboks. The ship took on fresh provisions, mainly lobster which was produced in large quantities but could not be exported for lack of shipping during the war. Lobster is a delicacy, but after consuming lobster morning, noon and night for three weeks, l still get seasick from the smell.
We refuelled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the temperature was thirty-seven degrees and where it rained without letup. Fungi big as mushrooms sprouted between our toes.
Finally, after a six-week hegira from Egypt, we arrived in Liverpool, from where the Dutch contingent was immediately shipped to Wolverhampton. Our spullen were inspected and when l opened my bag, bedbugs paraded out like a Napoleonic army. We had to surrender every last stitch of baggage, clothing and other possessions, all of which were incinerated. We ourselves were sent through a shower laced with poisonous insecticides that killed every insect in every crevice of our bodies and came close to killing us too.
Basic training in Wolverhampton was not a glowing experience. For occasional excitement we could go to the great metropolis of Birmingham where there were still certain foods lo be had such as pigs knuckles and jellied calfsfoot, preferable, l thought, to baked beans on toast.
In hindsight, seen from the experience of actual combat, the training of "Going Over the Top" in frontal attack while howling like rabid dogs, was based on the experience of trench warfare in World War 1.(5) Not a single time during our months on the western front did we use any of the tactics we were taught in Wolverhampton.
One thing basic training did achieve however was that it made us physically fit. After a 5 mile cross-country run early in the morning, we could sprint the last three hundred yards without getting winded. Sleeping anywhere any he was an acquired and necessary skill. In Normandy we were kept awake for days on end and often would fall asleep standing up.
The covered foxholes we sheltered in during mortar barrages were dank, stinking underground cavities, with millions of hungry mosquitoes zeroing in on our exposed flesh. Some hoods made of netting were available, but those went to the officers and non-coms, while we remained the unprotected bites. Our latrines were open pits with a tree trunk suspended over them. Those of us unfortunate enough to be in the latrine when a mortar attack started either cut the session short or wound up with freckled achterwerken.
(1) Once they arrived home, they were immediately shipped to the Siberian Gulag by Stalin who feared that they had been infected by what they had seen in the West. That was the fate of all liberated Soviet war prisoners. Millions had been starved to death in German prison camps; millions more died in Stalin's prisons.
(2) The word garmoshka is derived from the Russian term for harmony, pronounced garmony. The literal translation of garmoshka would be harmonium.
(3) All large passenger ships that were in Allied hands were converted to troop carriers which ferried troops around the globe. Their itineraries were: New York - Panama Canal - San Francisco - Australia - Bombay - Suez - Cape town - Liverpool - New York, half the ships running westward, the other half in opposite direction.
(4) Sol Schwarz was a member of our Palestine contingent. During basic training he proved to have no dexterity in handling weapons, so he was assigned to the bomb-disposal squad.
(5) De Gaulle was unable to install the notion of mobile, armoured war in the French General Staff. The British were stuck in hierarchies of antiquated doctrines as well and a fair percentage of their officer corps consisted of members of the Empire's ruling classes. The image of Colonel Blimp was not fiction. Exigencies of combat caused many of the incompetents to be culled from the command structure, but it was a slow process. Had we been subjected to anything like the German Blitzkrieg of 1940, we would have been decimated. Even the Soviets, after the Nazis attacked them in June of 1941, tried to fight tanks with cavalry. The Soviet generals of 1941 such as Budyenny and Timoshenko were Civil War commanders experienced in guerrilla tactics but without knowledge how to fight armour. By the time the Germans had penetrated the suburbs of Moscow in December, 1941, they had been replaced by generals who were versed in fighting a modem war.